Prior to entering education almost 10 years ago, I worked my way up the corporate ladder in Fortune 500 staffing and technology companies. As a mid-level manager, I interviewed hundreds of candidates to work in various jobs, from front-desk receptionists and salespeople to regional directors. It was hard not to notice the correlation of an interviewee’s sophistication, experience, knowledge, education level and skills and his or her salary history.

Prior to entering education almost 10 years ago, I worked my way up the corporate ladder in Fortune 500 staffing and technology companies. As a mid-level manager, I interviewed hundreds of candidates to work in various jobs, from front-desk receptionists and salespeople to regional directors. It was hard not to notice the correlation of an interviewee’s sophistication, experience, knowledge, education level and skills and his or her salary history. Spotting a “six-figure” candidate was easy, particularly as I was one as well. These “producers” commanded credibility, prestige and respect. They were men and women were capable of building strong teams, winning major accounts, getting results, keeping customers and employees happy and coaching and developing everyone in their sphere. In many ways, these high-dollar earners reminded me of my best teachers.

Growing up, my most influential teachers during my K-12 years were also “six-figure” individuals.

Although they worked for far less money, the lasting impact they have had on the lives of their students is difficult to quantify. They were dynamic and influenced our young lives in ways that could never be measured by standardized tests alone.

My first “six-figure” teacher was Ms. Vivi Romine, who taught sixth grade gifted and talented language arts core classes during the 1970’s and 80’s at Sowers Middle School in Huntington Beach, California. Ms. Romine was a force of nature! She brought so much of herself and her unique story into her classroom and we were spellbound. Born in Estonia, she had a knack for infusing political science into our discussions and never shied away from sharing her heartbreaking and heroic story of leaving her home country, at that time part of the Soviet Union. She organized and took us on a flurry of field trips all over Southern California to places like the Getty Museum, where many of us learned to appreciate great works of art for the first time. I recall one particular Monday morning after she saw the original production of the musical “Evita,” she brought back her souvenir program with its big glossy photos and engaged us in a lively discussion about the history of Argentina. She even played us songs from the original cast album to help us visualize the play.

My next two “six-figure” teachers were Ms. Karen Blue Morehouse and Mr. Lynn Aase. These two phenomenal teachers, fairly new in their careers when I had the good fortune to sit in their classrooms, went on to become pillars of “off-the-chart” teaching at Huntington Beach High School for decades. These two educators did far more than teach their subjects (English and Social Studies, respectively) superbly well, they were in the business of transforming lives. 

Ms. Morehouse, during one of her very first years teaching English 9 Honors, taught me and my classmates to write coherent, supported essays about literature, and her high expectations and winning personality inspired us to work very diligently to earn her approval and praise. She taught us not only how to read Shakespeare, but her love of the language, characters and themes was infectious—I was hooked.  It was no coincidence that simultaneously she was coaching the nation’s top dance/drill team, winning national acclaim and building a performing arts powerhouse. As a marching band kid, I was all-too aware of how good our drill team was; these talented dancers followed directly behind us in perfect formation during parade competitions. The first time my mom (a teacher and former drill team advisor, herself) came to watch me march and play my trumpet, the only thing she asked me after the parade was, “Who is your drill team advisor? They are very, very good!”

Model United Nations (UN) at Huntington Beach High School is legendary, and still the school is held in regard as one of the best in the country when it comes to this innovative academic program. Huntington’s Model UN legacy is due to the efforts of one visionary, Mr. Lynn Aase, who brought all the intelligence and strategy of a corporate CEO mixed with the competitive spirit of an NBA coach to his role as a high school history teacher. Seeing the potential for kids, he started pulling groups of students together at Huntington in the late seventies for Model UN, helped them to understand the complexities of international relations, and very quickly began winning top awards at major Model UN conferences all over the country at prestigious universities like Harvard and Berkeley. By the time I entered his program in 1982, he had built a culture of the highest academic standards: a program that valued excellence fueled by competition. While researching different countries, international issues and putting our debate and diplomacy skills to the test against students from all over the globe, Model UN became a vehicle preparing us not only for college, but also for very bright futures.

Even after almost 30 years, these “six-figure” teachers not only continue to shape the teacher I am becoming, they helped to forge the person I am today. I bring my love of art, literature and culture into my classroom like Ms. Romine; I set high standards and demand excellence from my student writers in my English classes like Ms. Morehouse; and I strive to build winning academic teams and programs at my high school like Mr. Aase. As a teacher, I am very much the product of these teachers who poured their very souls into helping students to reach their full potential, year after year. 

Having been a part of both worlds, business and education, it is clear to me that great teachers are worth far more than their paychecks reveal.

Like the three other “six-figure” teachers I mentioned, I have been recognized as a great educator because I work at my job in much the same way I did in my past life when I really was earning six figures—in fact, I probably work even harder and with greater skill, but I am not complaining. The fulfillment I experience helping students succeed far outweighs the inequity in pay when compared to the earnings of other educated professions. I am admittedly an unusual case—an anomaly—and hopefully similar to the outstanding teachers I mentioned earlier. I entered education because I believed I had the capacity and skill set to change my students’ lives for the better. This mission remains at the core of my teaching, but I know that my “six-figure” teaching colleagues and I are rare. 

The system of education our kids deserve, one that effectively supports higher student achievement in the face of higher poverty and obstacles that are more formidable for our students, must be a system that attracts, develops and retains higher performing educators. Teachers like me who are exceptions to the norm—“six-figure” individuals who are willing to work in lower paying careers due to chance, or because they truly care about improving our society—should not be the “unicorns” in education.  If we are going to recruit and retain truly excellent educators in our profession, we need to better compensate those who truly possess the talent to impact the lives of the students they touch. We need to restructure our institution so it truly values excellence rather than simply aiming for and ultimately accepting “adequacy.” We need to design a system where “six-figure” teachers can grow and thrive as teacher leaders, helping to support the development of our newer, emerging teachers without feeling burdened with additional uncompensated work, or feel compelled to leave the classroom altogether in pursuit of higher paying roles in education.

At school I found myself encouraging a truly talented twelfth grade student (who starts college in the fall of 2015) to consider a career in teaching. She looked at me during my sales pitch, smiled and nodded, and although she acknowledged she would very likely enjoy teaching and knew she would probably be good at it, her eyes revealed polite disinterest. She is sharp enough to realize, as I probably was back in high school when my teachers encouraged me to consider becoming an educator, that teachers—even the great ones—simply do not earn enough money for the work they devote to their work and to their students. My recruit did, however, like the idea of trying what I had done, if by accident: working in a more lucrative field first, and moving to teaching later if her first career was not fulfilling.

Wouldn’t it be better if she felt as excited about becoming a teacher as she does about pursuing a career in business or law? 

Ian Salzman
Ian Salzman is Nevada’s 2015 State Teacher of the Year and engages in a year of professional learning facilitated by the Council of Chief State School Officers. For information on a state's selection process, contact its State Teacher of the Year Program Coordinator. Ian teaches English (Advanced Placement English Language and Composition), AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), and Model United Nations at Spring Valley High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he has been teaching for the past nine years. In addition to his work as an educator, he also serves as co-director for the Southern Nevada Writing Project, an AVID Staff Developer, and Advanced Placement Exam Reader. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California, Irvine, a master’s in Teaching from Sierra Nevada College and holds a Specialist in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University.